Photo by Victoria Osborne
LAURA ASHBRENNER smiles from her favorite chair at Columbia Basin Care Facility in The Dalles on Oct. 2, just a day away from her 100th birthday. She is an artist who has dedicated much of her life to capturing the beauty of the gorge in her paintings. She worked at The Dalles Art Center for years, as well as other galleries. She was married 75 years and said God was good in matching her with her late husband.
As of Friday, October 3, 2014
Laura Ashbrenner, a long-time area artist who’s dedicated much of her life to immortalizing the beauty of Wasco County and the Columbia River gorge in her paintings, turns 100 years old today and said she couldn’t be more grateful for all of the memories she’s made throughout her life.
“I grew up on a farm, and I didn’t know all that much about people when I first started out,” she recalled. “But after graduating from high school, I knew I wanted to be an artist and that I wanted to go to college, so I did.”
Ashbrenner, who grew up near the Vancouver area and graduated from Battleground High School in the 1930’s, began her journey as an artist by earning a degree at the Oregon School of Fine Arts several years later.
“I did art for advertising agencies and companies like Meier and Frank, and at one point I was a bit of a starving artist living in the attic of one of my friend’s houses,” she laughed. “But then one day, my husband-to-be wrote me a letter asking if I wanted to get married.”
Ashbrenner was 23 at the time, and Edgar (Ed) Ashbrenner, then 29, had a limited time to get away from his railroad job in Wishram to travel all the way to Portland.
“I got everything organized and he showed up and we were getting all ready, only to realize all the places to get a marriage license in town were closed,” she said.
The couple ended up driving all the way to Stevenson to procure a license, but ended up missing their own wedding rehearsal and having to do a quick run-through the morning of the actual event.
“It was a rush,” Ashbrenner laughed, “but we made it, didn’t we?”
Afterwards, Ashbrenner recalled driving down the gorge with her new husband in the dead of night when he ran off the road after “having had a bit too much to drink” at their wedding.
“We must have waited for hours,” she said, smiling into her hand. “But eventually a nice man pulled his car over for us and drove us all the way to Wishram.”
Once they were settled in, Ashbrenner said her husband built her a ceramics shop, where she started her own business making “everything from teapots to flowerpots” and teaching the locals the art of ceramics.
“It was a wonderful time—I had so much fun,” she said. “And living there was a big education for me. People always seemed to know what you were going to do before you did it, I swear news travelled so fast that it would get to the other end of town and back before you’d even had time to walk it.”
The Ashbrenners, along with their three children, moved to The Dalles after the dam was built in 1957 and Ashbrenner began focusing more on her painting.
“I loved all the old barns that were just everywhere in those days,” she said. “On Ed’s day off, we’d drive around taking pictures of them so I could paint them later. Other times, he’d go out fishing on the Deschutes River and I’d paint the water and the rocks. It was only later that I learned there were rattlesnakes out there, but I never did run into one, so I guess I’ve always been pretty lucky.”
Ashbrenner said her artwork was displayed at The Dalles Art Center where she worked for many years, along with several galleries in Portland and around the gorge.
After her husband retired from the railroad business, she said they often went golfing together and that the money she earned from her artwork allowed them to go travelling, taking them all the way to her mother’s native Germany as well as England and Spain, among others.
They enjoyed a good relationship throughout their more than 75 years of marriage, Ashbrenner said.
“My dad had a temper and would swear at the horses when I was little,” Ashbrenner said, “but my husband didn’t swear or get mad. I didn’t know God made men like that, so I’ve always felt God was very good to me in so many ways—I’ve been very lucky.”